Home / Articles / The U.S. Military, the Strategic Quartet, and the Global War on Terrorism
One year after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the United States remains involved in its first global war of the 21st century. Notwithstanding the stunning military success in the Afghan theater of operations, the fact is that much war remains. The Global War on Terrorism without doubt will be a protracted conflict much like the world wars that preceded it in the 20th century. This point, however, remains difficult to sell to an American public who have, to a large extent, not been mobilized and are only afforded a partial view into the darkness that shades and obfuscates much of the war effort. The current war against terrorism differs from past conflicts largely in means rather than ends. It is not a “big battalion” war pitting large formations against one another. And although the front is everywhere, national mobilization, as past generations knew it, will not help.
The New Strategic Quartet
From an American perspective the First and Second World Wars were overwhelmingly conventional and traditional military conflicts. Infantry, armor, artillery, warships, and airplanes of the competing sides battled one another for victory— and, in the case of the Axis powers in the latter conflict, world domination. The war against al-Qaeda, and other groups of global reach, is an overwhelmingly unconventional and nontraditional conflict. Commando tactics and information warfare appear to be the keys to victory rather than massed industrial resources and a vast conscripted force. Unfortunately, however, the forces and capabilities that President Bush inherited a year ago were not best organized for such a conflict.
The aftermath of 9/11 has created a new strategic quartet for U.S. national security writ large. This quartet consists of the military, law enforcement and emergency response, the intelligence community, and the American public. Each has a different role and there will always be a degree of overlap between their areas of responsibility. At present their roles can be conceived in football terms. The military may be equated with the offense, law enforcement and emergency response with the defense, the intelligence community with the special teams, and the American public as the home field crowd. As in football, coordination and the ability to rapidly exploit opportunities are the keys to success on the field. In the future these arrangements will likely have to be changed to a system more like soccer or ice hockey, where there are more fluid and seamless transitions to offense and defense and then back again.
It should be remembered that while technology is a key enabler for the quartet, victory is forged through the performance of the individuals working together in the units composing each leg of the military, law enforcement and emergency response, and intelligence elements and through the mobilization and maintenance of the nation’s collective will. Excellence in the realm of personnel is essential. As the author and military analyst Ralph Peters has said, “Good isn’t enough. We need brilliant because the enemies we will face often will be the best their countries and cultures have to offer.” Anyone who doubts the truth of this statement should ask a member of the special operations community about how difficult it would be to pull off an operation such as the one that was accomplished by the hijackers a year ago.
The U.S. Military
In the military realm the current conflict is a double-edged sword because: (1) a large majority of the military is not actively engaged in the war leaving time and resources to transform and reorganize for future warfare but (2) special operations forces (SOF) are so taxed, it will be difficult to resist watering down their standards in order to expand capabilities. Below, several suggestions are made that might contribute getting the most from the challenges that each of the above factors provides.
If Gulf War II is fought against Iraq, then it would not be a stretch to predict that it will be the last time an adversary attempts to throw divisional- or corps-level assets against well-trained and well-equipped American troops. While the military must be prepared to act against all manner of contingencies — and to defend American interests unrelated to the war on terrorism such as in Latin America and northeast Asia— further movement must be made on fleshing out joint and combined operation command and control relationships— such as Standing Joint Task Forces. These are vital because seldom, if ever, in the future will U.S. forces operate solely with elements from a single branch of the armed forces. Also, much work needs to be done in incorporating the law enforcement and intelligence communities (as well as other agency actors) into current command structures as the Department of Defense has recently experimented with in the Millennium Challenge 2002 war game— although this must take place at levels below the combatant command level. Furthermore, advanced concepts such as decentralized operations, developing a culture of air movement for the Army, the naval “Streetfighter” program (smaller and more numerous surface and semi-submersible combatants), lighter-than air transport systems, magnetic rail gun technologies, and laser technologies should be experimented with in order to insure that our men and women in uniform are best equipped to meet conditions on the battlefields of the future.
From Tbilisi, Georgia, to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Basilan, the Philippines, American special operations units have been at the sharpest point of the spear in the war efforts thus far— and these are just the areas where the Department of Defense has admitted to sending troops. One can only guess where members of the ultra-secret special missions units of the Joint Special Operations Command have been operating and will operate in the coming years. With this in mind, the decision makers in the Pentagon and elsewhere should resist the temptation to markedly expand the number of SOF personnel.
As members of SOF like to say, their members cannot be mass-produced. The selection and training processes of these unique units allow them to perform at levels above their more conventional brethren. A rapid expansion in their numbers would thus water down standards that would in all likelihood have denigrating effects on respective unit performance. A better idea, under current circumstances, would be to train, man, and equip units with very high levels of elan such as the 82nd Airborne Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the various Marine Expeditionary Units to even higher standards, to prepare them to perform more Ranger-style missions. This then would free up the three battalions that comprise the 75th Ranger Regiment to focus on even more complicated direct action types of missions which in turn could further free-up elements of the special mission units to carry out the most sensitive operations. Army Special Forces units would then focus primarily on the unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense missions which are their core competencies. This course of action would raise the standards for the rest of the force without lowering SOF standards. In other words: quality has a quantity all its own.
Law Enforcement and Emergency Response
Civilian law enforcement at the federal (and perhaps state) level must develop a trained cadre of personnel that are knowledgeable about foreign cultures — particularly linguistic skills and cultural mannerisms— and the standard operating procedures of terrorist organizations. Only through the formation of such units will law enforcement be able to root out terrorist threats rather than react after a catastrophic event. An individual replacement system in organizations such as the FBI that makes agents anti-terrorism experts by transferring them into divisions that handle those responsibilities is not enough. Any notion of a Department of Homeland Security should include a law enforcement unit that has lead federal authority on terrorism cases — from both domestic and foreign perpetrators.
State and local law enforcement and emergency response providers, unlike their federal progeny, have been among the most praised groups in the year after 9/11. The heroics and sacrifices made by the men and women of the New York fire and police departments will not be forgotten. Likewise, the various state National Guards — Army and Air— have done an commendable job in protecting valuable pieces of infrastructure as well as adding to a sense of security— for most Americans— at airports and other sites. These institutions have performed admirably to past emergencies and will continue to be on the front lines of homeland defense.
The Intelligence Community
The intelligence community— as has been said countless times by individuals with operational espionage expertise, such as Raul Marc Gerecht— must break its fetish with an over-dependence on technological means of collection. CIA and DIA must develop stronger ties internationally and develop agents with more diverse linguistic and cultural skills. Also, programs such as the National Security Education Act should be expanded so that a larger segment of college-age students can be exposed to the possibility of working in the intelligence or diplomatic fields. The use of ultra-specific psychological profiles, the extensive use of polygraph tests, and the types of transgressions that bar individuals from service in the intelligence community should be reexamined in light of the new security environment. (As FPRI’s founder, the late-Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé, was fond of saying, “what spy agency can have a future if its agents have not had a past?”)
Internationally, the intelligence community should increase its use of non-resident covers (such as businessmen) — after all, what terrorist group will grant diplomatic or Geneva Convention rights to captured agents? Helpful overseas assets should also be given promises of resettlement to another country, or even U.S. citizenship, if their assistance proves crucial in subverting attacks against the United States and its interests or helps in destroying elements of a terrorist network. Physical safety will most likely prove a much more attractive reward to someone who has turned against his neighbor than will a financial reward that may never be spent due to the awardees demise.
The American Public
Maintaining the will of the American public will also be imperative. The nature of the current conflict, as stated, makes it in many respects tactically and operationally like past “small war” conflicts but its stakes at the strategic level of analysis are just as important as those of WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The most difficult dimension is to keep the American will mobilized when there most likely will not be events like the Normandy invasion and when some of the greatest victories may not be publicly known until months later because the means used to achieve them are highly classified.
The American public must be kept mobilized for conflict and be cognizant of the threats that affect their security. Mobilization will obviously be different from past conflicts, but serious consideration should be given to issuing war bonds or imposing a nominal war on terrorism national sales tax that would at least serve as a daily reminder that American men and women are serving in harm’s way. As far as cognizance, because there is no front line in this war, the American people must stay alert to suspicious behavior while avoiding national paranoia. Because of this President Bush’s prime responsibility will be to keep up public support for the protracted conflict. This is the case because as the prime Western philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War, “As each man’s strength gives out, as it no longer responds to his will, the inertia of the whole gradually comes to rest on the commander’s will alone. The ardor of his spirit must rekindle the flame of purpose in all others; his inward fire must revive their hope.”
The shadowy character of the Global War on Terrorism requires that the American military and the other corners of the new strategic quartet be the best that they can be. Winning the war on terrorism, however, will not be easy. Over 20,000 individuals reportedly trained in the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and other locations. This number does not count those individuals aligned with bin Laden for either ideological reasons or tactical advantage. Further, capturing an individual such as bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri will not guarantee the demise of al-Qaeda. Because the police officer in New York City is just as much on the front lines as is the Special Forces soldier in the Hindu Kush, the spears and shields of American democracy must be honed and ready for action. All of the elements of the new strategic quartet therefore have to work together in order to ensure victory.
Author’s note: While the views expressed here are the author’s alone, he would like to thank Mark Kohut, Mark R. Lewis, and Harvey Sicherman for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
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